ACC Hoops – Early Lessons

The first week or so of the college hoops season has come and gone. As always, there were a few surprises. Instead of addressing each separately, I’ll just mush ’em all together in here.
NC State is better than expected
Of the six ranked ACC teams, NC State is the lowest. They were picked by the writers to come in fifth in the conference, although basically they and Maryland were tied. The reasoning behind putting them behind those other teams, several of whom they finished above last year, is that State lost Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill, two critical seniors from last year’s team.
Well, after what I’ve seen in the first three games, State is better than last year. Melvin was an underrated player last year, contributing in many ways, including scoring, rebounding, interior defense and three-point shooting. Sherrill too was a guy who’s contributions in defense and ball-handling were under-appreciated.

So far, those losses seem to be more than offset by the continued improvement of Engin Atsur and Ilian Evtimov. Both players are multi-skilled and seem to fit in so well with Herb Sendek’s high-motion offense. The real key to this year’s good start though, may be the play of Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel. Bethel has started at the point and played very well so far, including scoring 22 points against East Carolina the other day. I made fun of Julius Hodge’s saying that Bethel was one of the best points in the conference, but maybe he was right. The ACC is absolutely loaded with point guards this year (more on that below), and it looks like Bethel can hold his own.
A good point guard can make all the difference in college basketball. This year, that may be more important than ever in the ACC, because if you don’t have one, your opposition will and they’ll eat you up on both ends of the floor.
Carolina is more vulnerable than expected
We all knew that the one position where UNC is most vulnerable is at the point guard spot. When Raymond Felton is hitting shots and concentrating on defense, there’s no better player in the country, not even Chris Paul. That’s great for the Tar Heels. What’s not so great is that they basically have no backup for him.
I thought that that weakness might cause them some trouble later in the season. I had no idea that it would show up so soon. Felton was suspended for Carolina’s first game for playing in a Chavis League game (the league failed to file the paperwork to be sanctioned last summer). Without their leader, the Tar Heels crumbled, playing awful ball and losing to Santa Clara. While I don’t think the loss means that much in the grand scheme of things, they have to be concerned that one player means so much to a team that is supposed to be loaded with talent.
To underscore the difference with and without Felton, he played last night against BYU, and Carolina destroyed them, leading 48-18 at the half. They are going to need to find a way to train Quentin Thomas to take over when Felton is out or they will underachieve this year.
Is Virginia a sleeper?
You may recall that Virginia ended the ACC season last year about as hot as any team in the country. They finished with wins over Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina. In three of their late season wins, Todd Billet hit game-winners in the final seconds. Because Billet hit all of those shots, he got the attention, which sort of obscured what was really going on with the Cavs. The real reason they started winning was the play of freshmen guards TJ Bannister and JR Reynolds. Reynolds, a shooting guard, took over as one of Virginia’s top scorers. Bannister took over the point guard duties and completely changed the face of a team that had relied on players like Billet, Keith Jenifer and Roger Mason, Jr. to play the point in recent seasons. The change was marked. Bannister can’t shoot, so didn’t score much, but he protected the ball and ran the offense which made all the difference.
In addition to those to frosh, Virginia got solid, if uneven, seasons out of freshmen Gary Forbes, a high-flying wingman with an allergy to defense and Donte Minter, a wide-body PF with nice post moves. Also, Devin Smith, Virginia’s best player, played the last couple of months last year with a herniated disk in his back. Smith didn’t even practice the last two months of the year and coaches never knew if he could play until just before tipoff. A healthy Smith is an All-ACC-caliber player.
All that said, Virginia looked to be, at best, an average team. A team that would struggle against a league stacked with giants this year. Well, not so fast. It turns out that they now have a new weapon, one that may be the best they’ve had in years – freshman point guard Sean Singletary.
Singletary was expected to be pretty good, but he didn’t have the national rep that many recent ACC recruits have had. Well, so far, he looks like a steal for Pete Gillen. In his first game, Singletary unseated Bannister as the starter (they often play both together now) and tied a UVA freshman record with seven assists. Fine, that was against Robert Morris (the school, not the Founding Father. I think Singletary would have done even better against the guy.).
In his second game, Singletary was matched against Arizona’s Mustafa Shakur, one of the best guards in the country and a nominee for the Wooden Award. All Singletary did was put up a line of 15 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists and 6 steals. He ate Shakur up in leading the Cavs to a resounding win.
If you think the win was fluky because the Wildcats just shot poorly, consider this – UVA hit only 4 of 17 three pointers, but still won by 18 points. This game was no fluke; it was a statement game. Pete Gillen’s coaching success has always come when he’s had quick guards who can play his pressing scheme (i.e God Shammgod and Donald Hand). He hasn’t had that recently at Virginia, but with Singletary and Bannister (who had 4 steals against Arizona), he does now.
Does this mean that Virginia will challenge for the ACC title? No, of course not. But the league will likely earn seven NCAA bids this year, and the Cavs already have one statement win that they can use to make their case at the end of the season.
Is Florida State that bad?
I didn’t see the game, but good Lord, an ACC team should never lose to a team with a name as long as Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Hell, losing to the main Texas A&M is bad enough. Texas A&M Corpus Christi? I’m embarrassed for the Seminoles.
I mentioned that seven schools will probably get bids this year. There are six likely for-sure teams (the six that are ranked right now) and then two likely bubble teams in UVA and FSU. Let’s see, UVA just spanked #10 Arizona, while FSU lost to a glorified community college. Gee, I wonder who has the early lead?

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